Richard Bartle Part 2

17 Dec 2008  by   Paul Younger
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Recently Dr. RichardBartle; widely recognised for co-writing the first MMO, Multi-UserDungeon (MUD), has been criticised for his alleged negativity of allvideogames.  We decided to give Bartle a call, especially after ourvery own MMO Weekly reported his dissapointment in a WoW quest from the new expansion, inorder to respond to various claims. In this, the second part of ourinterview, Bartle talks about how WoW designers got it wrong and why.

Click here for the first part of the interview where Bartle discusses his journey into the videogame industry.

I know your biggest point of concern was that it was out of context and that the average WoW player wouldn’t expect to torture.  Is that fair to say?

The actual nuance of my complaint wasn’t even that.  It was this.  If you do want to put that in, and out of context, then you have to put it into context immediately afterwards.  If you step over the line you have to pull them back over to where they were otherwise they don’t know that they’ve crossed the line.

Blizzard know how to do it.  I remember doing a quest with my Night Elf out in Teldrassil somewhere and there’s this Satyr who asks you to kill a bunch of things that you know you’re not really supposed to kill.  So you go off and kill them and get some minor reward, but then the Night Elf authorities, the guys who give you your quests, tell you off.  They ask why you’re helping this evil guy and give you another quest for redemption.  If you do this quest you’re back in their good books again.  That’s a good example.  What that shows is that if you’re tempted to do something evil then there will be consequences for it and here, look, we’re giving you a way back now.  Will we in future?  Who knows? 

But the point is that they’ve flagged up the scenario of you don’t do every quest you’re offered, because some of them might have bad consequences.

I think the biggest point of contention was bringing the Geneva Convention into this argument. 

My argument was that when you’re fighting a war people are going to have to die.  That’s going to happen.  Nevertheless you try to kill within your own morality.  So you justify it by saying that “If I don’t kill this person, they’ll kill me.” Alternatively you may kill animals because they’re not as intelligent and you want to eat them or use their coats for warmth or whatever.  Or you could kill them to control a habitat making sure the ecosystem stays balanced.  So you have moral justifications, and each person’s justification is different. 

The thing is if you say that it’s morally justified to kill people under certain circumstances, that isn’t saying torture is a lesser evil than death, so anything less than killing must be fine.
Putting it another way: If I go to war and kill people them come back from the war and rob you of all your belongings, it doesn’t mean that it’s a lesser crime because I’ve committed a much worse atrocity. 

But surely that’s all within context.  You don’t expect soldiers to come back and act the same way in a normal society as they would have done in a war situation?

If you are playing a game and you believe that the actions you’re taking in the game for your character are morally justified, and then you come across one which isn’t morally justified, then you pause for thought.

Why did I mention the Geneva Convention?  Well, that’s because that’s the way the real world decides whether actions in war are justified. 

Within WoW, whether it was deliberate or not, the game had followed the Geneva Convention, and suddenly it doesn’t.  It’s that shift that is the cause of my complaint.

Now I am by no means saying that you can’t create a game that doesn’t follow the Geneva Convention.  Of course not, people can put what they like in games within reason.  However, if you change the nature of what you’ve been doing in any way, you have to flag up the fact that this was deliberate.  Otherwise you’ve suddenly changed it without any warning.

It’s like the example I gave on watching The Simpsons and South Park.  If you were watching one, you wouldn’t like it if it became the other.  You may like South Park more, but if you’d started watching The Simpsons you just wouldn’t want it to turn into South Park.  Likewise, if I play a game that I feel my characters are all acting in a morally justified way, then I’ll be uncomfortable when I’m asked to do something that is out of character for them.  That’s my point with this quest and game.

What’s the difference between torturing somebody and acquiring information from somebody (in the shape of beating or bullying) by force?

I play Alliance and I’m not so sure about that when you play Alliance.  I did have a request once to beat up a drunk in a pub. 

The difference is that if I’d blogged that I didn’t like beating up that guy then people would have said what a wuss I was.

Is it fair to say that adding new boundaries and giving people a little more freedom and/or dilemma’s, keeps the game fresh?

It depends how you do it.  You have to keep the game’s fiction consistent.  If you push a boundary back there has to be a reason for it which is centred in the game’s fiction.  Otherwise people think they’ve signed up to play one game and it changes beneath them into something else. 

You can push the boundaries out but on the other hand you could pull it in.  Imagine you got to level 80 in WoW and all of a sudden there was no killing.  All you could do is join raids where you make bandages.  So that would be within the expectations because you will have been making bandages the whole time, but it wouldn’t be very fun for the gamers.
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But if someone has created a world, like it or not, they are the Gods of their world.  They decide what to do with it and how the populace will interact with their game.  You said it yourself, if you’re going to create something, why not create a world?  If that’s the case, then how do you keep morality integral to a world that doesn’t adhere to the real world?

I am a great defender of designers doing what they want in their world.  As long as it doesn’t break any rule, designers have the right to put in what they like.  Players have the right not to play it if it bothers them. 

If Blizzard wants to change the nature of WoW, it can do that.  It can start putting in characters who say “Roger Rabbit”, or anything else for that matter.  It’s their world, and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to play.  Now I’m a designer and I can play anyway because I’m not a player.  When I play these worlds I do it for two reasons:

1)    To get qualifications, so that other players and people can’t accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about because I don’t play them.
2)    The other reason is to see how the games are progressing from a designer point of view.

For example, I’ve played LotRO all the way through.  Now I could have stopped at level ten, it’s all pretty much the same after that, but I only carried on so that people didn’t brand me as  a WoW fanboy.

And I’m kind of exasperated by all this because all I was really saying is that Blizzard had made a design mistake.  The design mistake was, and I’ll repeat it again, that they didn’t flag up the torture quest.  Alarm bells should have rung there.  That’s all I was saying.

If Blizzard have decided to take the game down the darker route and we’ll see more quests similar to this one, then people might stop playing it, and that’s the players right.  I don’t think this particular quest is going to hurt anybody, and yes, everyone makes mistakes and I don’t intend to petition to have the game shut down, I wouldn’t even say change that quest.  All I’m saying is “Hey designers, you’ve done this and it’s not really right.”

If you could say one thing to the Blizzard designers, what would it be?

All I would say is that then next time you put in a quest where you intend to shock people, you have to put something else in afterwards as a consequence and that it’s there for an artistic or political reason. If it’s not indicated in some way that this is an exception, then players will get the wrong impression, misreading your political or artistic expression, which means they’re misinterpreting the game.

You know what’s crazy, is that this is one tiny point I made on my personal blog and it’s been taken out of proportion.  When I do say good things, it’s always ignored.

You think the mission would be justified if there were consequences?

What, if you were a good designer, you would do is you would have some acknowledgment of just what happened was making a point. 
SO if I go out and blast something with a fireball, it drops dead and I get points.  That’s routine.  Some people wouldn’t like to do that in the first place, but they wouldn’t play the game. 

If, having accepted all that, I go and find myself doing a torture quest I start to worry.  I’ve not come across a torture quest before, so does that mean Blizzard think torture is ok?  If it does then that’s a little bit disturbing really.  If not, then the quest has been put here for a point, in which case, when I do it, the point will be revealed.

But it’s not.  And it’s because the point hasn’t been revealed, that’s the thing.  So it feels like you’ve pushed the line, that the fiction has changed.  If the boundaries have been pushed back because they haven’t addressed the issue of torture, and there isn’t a clear way to decline the mission, then it’s not within context, nor does it comply with the fiction of the game.

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